Chapter Twenty-Eight

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She'd been reaching out to Dwoll. To her home, and Kelle--but a sudden tug thrust Matta violently sideways and changed the direction of her grasping fingers. Now she found herself in darkness.

She heard a scream--and knew it.

"Lorn!"

She spun, and the darkness spun with her. She was falling.

When Matta hit the ground with a jarring thump, it was damp. She tasted salt. Thin, snaking forms writhed just out of sight in the deepest shadows.

Matta saw blood-red blooms and gleaming thorns.

She heard the scream again. It was close. So close. She reached out, fumbling for the shape of warmth and pain that was her brother--

All at once, she was in a chamber. A wide, round chamber flickering with torches.

There were six chairs in a circle, each holding an indistinct form of light. Green, silver, crimson, yellow, violet--and blue. Tinged now with black.

"Lorn."

Matta stumbled forward, hands flung out before her like a blind woman, and caught hold of her little brother. There was a shadow standing over him. It held a bloody knife, and was laughing.

"Lorn." She shook him. Shook him as hard as she could. "Lorn!"

Blood. There was too much blood. It glowed like embers on the floor.

She had brushed against him on her last visit to the living world. She'd felt his presence--but it had been fleeting, and she hadn't been able to find her way back. Now she knew why.

Alavard. This is Alavard.

Oh stars no.

Matta cupped Lorn's face and pressed her forehead to his. "Please, brother. Please. Open your eyes and see me."

"I see you."

Matta turned. There was a flicker of flame--no, a girl--a girl crouched on the floor. A tall, lean shadow loomed over her like death itself.

Guin. The girl was Guin.

Guin stared at her, and Matta stared back. And now she saw something else. Something besides the tall, lean shadow. All about the girl, wrapped around her like a shroud of mist, was darkness. It was as if some sort of beast was attached to her spine and dragging her down, pressing her into the floor.

Matta said, "Help him."

"I'm. Trying," Guin gasped. She seemed unable to breathe.

Again, Matta studied the cloying mass of darkness as it pressed down on the girl's back. And as she stared, for a moment, it seemed to take the form of a man. It had eyes, and teeth, that gleamed yellow in its face.

And she knew it, too. She knew its name.

Matta stood up. She let go of her brother's cold face. She stepped forward.

"You," she said softly.

The darkness grinned.

And so Matta did the only thing she could--the only thing she knew how to. After all, it had worked once.

A sword appeared in her hand. It was made of memory--sharp as grief and almost as heavy. Matta raised it, gripped the hilt in both hands, and attacked the dead man's shadow.

_____

Was she dreaming? Hallucinating from malnutrition, dehydration and pain? Or maybe she'd just finally lost her mind?

Guin couldn't tell. But there she was, glowing and flickering like a bad CGI hologram. Matta, high-queen of Ther. Lorn's big sister.

She didn't look at all happy to be there.

Again, Guin tried to stand. Her arms and legs gave out and she fell hard onto her shoulder with a small shriek of pain. Things seemed to be happening in slow motion, swathed in cotton-wool. Color and sound had leached out of the world. Everything seemed very far away. Thesul, Lorn, Mogra--all of them, little more than distance murmurs of memory. They didn't really matter anymore. All that mattered was the darkness--its weight, its suffocating weight, crushing her flat against the cold stone floor.

A few feet away, Lorn was being tortured. The man named Mordel was doing something to his leg with a very sharp knife. Guin knew this. But even that seemed dulled, distanced. Unreal.

I gotta help--save--save them...

She tried to stand again. It was then that she saw Matta--the young woman was the only thing Guin could still see clearly--had a sword. It seemed made of light, and left searing afterimages across the inside of Guin's eyelids. When did Matta get a bloody magic sword? And since when could she teleport? This made no sense. No sense at all. And Guin's head ached. It ached so savagely that she thought, perhaps, she should just die. That would be easy, after all. Easy, and the pain would stop--

Matta let out a cry. It rang out like the clash of steel. "Get away from her you pitborn slag!"

Guin gasped. If she could have moved, she would have rolled away from Matta, away from the swinging, blazing, blinding arc of the sword. But she couldn't move, only watch with her dimming, dissolving sight.

There was a silent, pulsing shriek--not a noise, but an echo of profound noiselessness. It shuddered through Guin's bones like an earthquake aftershock.

And then it was gone. The weight. The smothering darkness.

It was gone.

If she'd had the strength, Guin would have wept for joy. But she could only lie still, and breathe. Oh, but what a wonderful thing it was to breathe!

And as she lay, greedily drinking in oxygen like someone who'd just come close to drowning, Matta dropped to one knee beside her. The queen bent close and whispered, "Now get up, and save my brother."

And then she was gone.   

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